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FIFA World Cup 2018: It was defence that caused Spain pain in Russia

Numbers show that Spain needed less passes to score in 2018 but lacked defensive organisation that made them champions in 2010

football Updated: Jul 04, 2018 15:47 IST
Divyan Aggarwal
Divyan Aggarwal
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Spain football team,Russia football team,FIFA World Cup 2018
Spain were eliminated from FIFA World Cup 2018 by Russia on penalties.(AFP)

Perhaps the only lasting imprint on the mind of an otherwise drab encounter that sent Spain home was the endless volume of passes they played. On way to being defeated by Russia in penalties, Spain became the first team to breach the 1000-passes mark in World Cup history.

For all of Spain’s prodigious statistical domination, epitomised by the 75% possession, they failed to test the Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, forcing the Russian shot-stopper into only two serious saves in two hours.

The manner of their exit seems to fit into the narrative that has surrounded the Spanish team at the time of failure in major tournaments since 2012 --- they hog the ball, bore the watching public to death, lack ingenuity and eventually pass themselves out.

However, when you compare the statistics from Spain’s 2018 World Cup with their conquest in 2010, a surprising dichotomy appears.

In 2018, Spain scored 7 goals in 4 games, at 1.75 goals per game which compares far more favourably to the 8 goals in 7 games, at 1.14 goals per game, which fetched them the World Cup. In 2010, they needed 491 successful passes on an average to score one goal whereas in Russia they required 446.

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This Spain team produced 5.25 shots on target per game, which is only marginally less than the 6.42 attempts the team of 2010 had.

So, what was the differentiating factor between winning the World Cup in 2010 and a pre-quarter final stage exit in 2018? Numbers seem to belie the popular notion that it was Spain’s inability to unlock defences that led to an early flight home.

It is when you look at Spain’s defensive record that an obvious malaise underpinning the 2018 campaign emerges.

In 2010, Spain conceded two goals in the entire campaign spanning seven games. In Russia they let in six in four. David de Gea shipped those six goals from only seven attempts on target, successfully saving only one shot and leaving with a save percentage of 14%. On the other hand, Iker Casillas saved 18 of the 20 shots on target he faced in 2010 ---- a staggering save ratio of 90%.

The Spanish defence also built an unenviable catalogue of errors in Russia. The theme was set early when Nacho Fernandez dangled an unnecessary leg to send Cristiano Ronaldo tumbling, leading to a penalty in the third minute of their opening group match against Portugal. The rot continued with the usually infallible pair of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique getting into a positional muddle leaving Portugal’s Goncalo Guedes free to set up Ronaldo whose tame shot should have been gobbled up by De Gea, but was allowed to squeeze in.

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Against Iran and Morocco too, the Spanish defence looked far from secure. The only save De Gea made in the tournament came off the back of another collective howler from the Spanish backline as they were caught out by a Moroccan throw-in and allowed forward Khalid Boutaib to race clean through on goal. And then there was Pique bandying his arms loosely in the air to concede a penalty against Russia on Sunday.

Their frailties at the back and the lack of defensive organisation were further demonstrated by the fact that out of the six goals they conceded in the tournament, four were off either set-pieces or penalty kicks.

The only component of the 2018 defensive unit which matched up statistically to that of 2010 was defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets’ numbers. He put in four successful tackles in four games which compares slightly favourably to Xabi Alonso’s six in 7. This only serves to cast the spotlight back on their back-four and the conspicuous absence of an iron-fist, no-nonsense first defender of the ilk of Carles Puyol.

It seems the absence of a stable defensive base provided by a sentinel-like backline in 2010 that took Spain home early.

First Published: Jul 04, 2018 15:45 IST